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Not black like me

African American kids adopted by white families struggle with self-esteem and sense of self.

May 31, 2008

As many child advocates feared when laws were changed in the 1990s to permit trans-racial adoptions of children in foster care, the practice is not working well for black children raised in white families, according to a comprehensive new study.

Although the report noted that trans-racial adoption alone does not lead to maladjusted children, dark-skinned children in white families face a range of challenges -- they struggle with self-esteem and a longing to fit in that federal policies disregard in favor of a relentlessly colorblind process. But children aren't colorblind. The report tells of black children rubbing themselves with white body lotions, cream or chalk, or asking for white skin for Christmas, in order to better fit in with their white families and communities.

When the Multiethnic Placement Act was passed in 1994 and amended two years later to end the practice of matching children and parents by race, the stated goal was to reduce the amount of time African American children spent in foster care. That hasn't happened. Nor has a provision requiring recruitment of black families been complied with, even though black families are most likely to adopt black children.

Rolling back the clock and permitting only people of the same race to adopt foster children is not the answer, but the law does need amending to make trans-racial adoptions more successful. Families would benefit from pre-adoption information and counseling, which they seldom get because child welfare officials don't want to run afoul of federal prohibitions on considering the race of adoptive parents. White parents raising black children can be confronted with many difficulties -- some small, such as learning how to braid hair, and others large, such as helping their children navigate a world in which racism and discrimination have become more complex and subtle. A key life skill for black children, according to the report, is coping with discrimination; parental guidance is crucial but does not always come naturally.

In making its case for thoughtful parental training, the report cites Sen. Barack Obama. Although he was not adopted, he has often noted the challenge of coming to terms with his identity after being raised in part by his white grandparents.

"Away from my mother, away from my grandparents, I was engaged in a fitful interior struggle," Obama wrote in his book, "Dreams From my Father." "I was trying to raise myself as a black man in America, and beyond the given of my appearance, no one around me seemed to know exactly what that meant."

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